A Matter of Blood by Sarah Pinborough
In a desultory way, I keep my ear to the ground for sounds of tom-toms announcing the arrival of someone new and interesting. The news of Sarah Pinborough has seemed encouraging for some time now. Indeed, I’ve read one or two short stories in “Best of” and other anthologies, and had been promising myself I would get round to the novels. Ace is now republishing a trilogy which first appeared in the UK back in 2010 as The Dog-Faced Gods. A Matter of Blood: The Forgotten Gods: Book 1. (Ace, 2013) is my chance to see what all the hype is about. Well, as a headline, the core of this book is terrific! Wait a minute. The core? What’s wrong with the rest of it then? So here comes a slightly frustrated but hopefully balanced and positive review.
This is a near-future police procedural or thriller. The term “near-future” is usually applied to SFnal books set a few years ahead of our own. It’s not science fiction which is usually set in the more distant future, allowing time for technology to make significant progress from where we are now. So by refusing the more extravagant trappings of scientific advance, authors avoid the label of doom (it shouldn’t be, but many authors hate their books to be classified as science fiction) and claim to be writing more literary books in which they discuss social and political possibilities. It’s what we might call soft science fiction because it’s supposedly more plausible. A different way of describing these books is as a form of alternate history in which different choices made in our past have produced a reality which is not the same as our own. In this book, Britain has entered recession and been forced to make drastic cuts. So, for example, the National Health Service, considered by many to be jewel in the labour movement’s crown, has essentially been privatised with health care accessible only by those with the right jobs or a good insurance policy. The corruption in the police force has been institutionalised as a reaction to severe pay cuts. Our boys and girls in blue now sell the absence of their services to all the major gangs. And so on.
The question is what this near-future or alternate history scenario adds to the quality of the resulting whole. The answer, I regret to say, is absolutely nothing. Although it’s adding a layer of potential dystopia to the action, I feel it would have been far more effective if this discussion of what constitutes corruption had been firmly rooted in our own reality. There’s a wealth of evidence about the corruption in the current police force which protects those with positions of power and takes money from the media and other interested parties for the knowledge and expertise they have accumulated. It would have been more shocking to build real-world examples of out-of-control factions within the police than to parade this scenario where the police are a little bit more corrupt than they are now. All it does is to allow the author to score a few easy political points. It produces a form of straw man argument in which the author attacks a position not actually taken by the politicians and police force and, through the attack, suggests the politicians and police are more corrupt. No, wait, the politicians and police are corrupt. So why use a straw man at all?
Then our police procedural suddenly veers off into supernatural territory. Forces are breeding humans for some purpose and, if the bloodlines are not found strong enough when tested, the humans are terminated. Wow. Well that’s original. Eugenics of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your weakest links. From quite an early point, I was reminded of a line in King Lear. Gloucester says,
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.”
If you read the book, you’ll quickly see what I mean at both a literal and a metaphorical level. Again, this seems to be a distracting subplot. The core of this book is a brilliant police procedural in which our slightly bent detective gets caught up in three cases. There’s a serial killer doing the rounds, killing women and writing on their chests in blood. A gangland hit goes wrong and two boys are gunned down in the street as a major criminal gets out of a taxi. The hero has a brother who kills his wife and child, then turns the gun on himself. Now it would have been possible to write this as a straight police procedural in which a Mister Big fixer or kingpin orchestrates the set-up for our hero to investigate and resolve. I see no added value in the supernatural element. The investigation itself is tough and uncompromising. The characterisation is strong and the plot quality of the highest order. I can see why Sarah Pinborough has picked up a good reputation. But to me, this pudding is overegged. It’s trying to do too much. This is not to say, it’s a failure. Far from it. But I can’t help but imagine just how good it would have been if all the superfluous distractions had been removed and we’d been left with a lean, mean police investigation which exposed major corruption in the ranks. So I recommend A Matter of Blood in a guarded way unless you just can’t resist near-future, alternate history supernatural police procedurals. In that case, it’s a brilliant example of what you like.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.